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Calculation and Miscalculation

Mary had arrived in England as a fugitive from Scottish rebels on May 16th 1568 expecting that her cousin Elizabeth 1, would provide an army to put her back on the Scottish throne. This expectation alone was totally unrealistic. While Elizabeth was thoroughly opposed to rebels deposing anointed monarchs, once her cousin had arrived asking for aid she carried a history which could not be ignored. Elizabeth certainly wanted to return her to be Queen of Scotland, but the first months of her time in England through into 1569 were the months when the exiled Queen found unexpected challenges developing. Faced with the prospect of having their Queen returned, the Scottish power elite responded with accusations of scandalous behaviour and malpractice which Elizabeth could not ignore.

The Queen had become an exile because she had made political mistakes generating civil war, something her grandson Charles 1 did with the same eventual result – he also lost his head to the executioners axe. The most serious mistake of her time in Scotland was her weak response to the murder of her second husband Lord Darnley generating suspicions she was involved. As the sensation developed, Elizabeth and indeed her French mother in law Catherine de Medici stood by her expecting her to prosecute suspects. When these expectations failed, rebels protesting at the murder of Darnley, and her marriage to the man accused of organising his killing, Lord Bothwell gained support. Mary faced a rebellion which was as brutal and unjust as mediaeval politics ever were: Scotland being very much a mediaeval society. The Scots power elite made an almost unprecedented judgement on her character that she was morally unfit as a mother to have the right to bring up her own child, and she would never again see her son.

These were sensations which even the sympathetic John Guy agrees “tarnished her reputation for ever, and rightly so. She (Mary TF) made no serious effort to bring Darnley’s killers to justice” (Guy 2018 p314= see the rest of the page for his analysis of the damage caused to her reputation). She had finally united her famously divided country as Guy concludes “Even the Catholics deserted Mary in her hour of need” (op cit p311). What happened in Scotland followed her into England. While the Catholics turned back to her later the legacy which she brought to England was a blackened reputation, which made Elizabeth hesitate to support her.. Catherine de Medici had abandoned her long before – something Mary did not seem to grasp. Nor did she grasp that putting her fate in the hands of her cousin was seriously foolish.

It was an unforced error to come to England with her advisors opposed to such a move, as she had no real reason to believe that Elizabeth while sympathetic was going to put her back on the Scottish throne. The Scots Queen assumed that she could put her whole future in the hands of her cousin though she had never met her and had no understanding the beneath her deep rooted principled support for monarchy the English Queen had an even deeper rooted commitment to holding onto the English throne, and her future was threatened by Mary’s demand to be returned as Scottish Queen. Leading English protestants agreed with the Scots protestants that Mary’s relationship with Bothwall was intolerable and may have been a cause of Darnley’s murder

The complexity of the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary, rests on the fact their blood ties meant she was clearly the strongest candidate to succeed Elizabeth as Queen, which was not an asset for Mary as this factor made Catholic rebellion highly likely, and the political agreements and disagreements arising from the religious divisions should have shown Mary her cousin could never support her. But Mary appeared incapable of making objective decisions which as Antonia Fraser wrote was to become a profoundly damaging family trait. Antonia Fraser comments that Mary’s nature showed “that streak either of the romantic or the gambler, which leads the subject ever to prefer hope and high adventure to the known quantity, and which Mary Stuart passed on so dramatically to many of her later Stuart descendants”. (Fraser 2002 p456). The history of her descendants in England confirms that this is so – with just one brilliant exception. Her great grandson, Charles II was faced with just the problem Mary faced after Langside: how to escape after defeat in battle.

Charles II was in worse straits after the Battle of Worcester than his great grandmother was after Langside, having seen his army destroyed by Cromwell’s highly skilled troops while his great grandmother still had potential forces that would rally to her. But Charles, the morning after the battle when tired, hungry and demoralised, evaluated his options and decided to dismiss his entourage and rely on the illiterate working people of the Forest of Brewood. He did not know them, could not be certain they would not betray him, and was unclear whether they had the skills he needed. But caught between a rock and a hard place, ie Cavaliers who could not help him and Forest People who might, he gambled and his choice saved his life. It was not just the Royal Oak that saved him but his intelligent appreciation of the right choice to make to escape a trap. He was the only Stuart in two centuries to have that skill.

His great grandmother was nowhere near as realistic. She knew she shared the assumptions with Elizabeth 1, that monarchy could not be challenged and monarchs should therefore support each other against rebels, and this was the trigger for Mary’s disasterous decision as she fled from the battlefield at Langside – that she should leave Scotland for England and plead for support of her cousin. She relied on Elizabeth’s stated policy as in 1567 Elizabeth had told her ambassador Sir Nicholas Throckmorton to tell the Scots they had no right to rebel whatever the circumstances saying:

“they have no warrant or authoritie by the law of God or man to be as superiors, judges or vindicators over their prince and soverayne, howsoever disorders they do gather or conceyve mater or disordere against her” (

Doran 2015-18 p76)

Elizabeth was only persuaded not to threaten to go to war to prevent Mary’s deposition (which the ambassador knew could not be stopped) when Throckmorton pointed out Mary would be killed if an English army crossed the border. Mary was fully aware this could happen, as the rebels threatened her with this fate during her imprisonment in Lochleven Castle, Throckmorton believed only his presence would save her, (Fraser p425) and Elizabeth realised there was little she could do to intervene in Scotland.

When in July 1567 Mary had been finally deposed and her infant son crowned King (July 29th ), Mary’s half brother the Earl of Moray being declared regent, Elizabeth chose to be a passive witness to the events in Scotland – Moray being an acceptable governor to the English especially after he sold Mary’s jewels to Elizabeth, a development which Mary was unaware of. However Mary escaped from Lochleven and rapidly mobilised an army. With her supporters outnumbering those of her half brother, Moray, the odds at the Battle of Langside sugggested Mary would win and regain her throne without needing Elizabeth to have to fulfil her promise to mobilise to help her cousin in battle. But Mary lost.

Mary’s best option after the battle even if she was to appeal for English aid was to remain in Scotland, regroup her supporters to produce armed forces which the English could assist if need be. Certainly Mary’s advisors argued she should not go into exile, but Mary was determined to go across the border and seek the assistance of her cousin. Panic and the trauma of the events of her deposition and failure in battle influenced her decisions making a bad situation worse. Towards the end of her life Mary wrote in a letter to the Catholic Archbishop Beaton “But I commanded my best friends to permit me to have my way….” (Fraser 2002 p456) a mistake she would regret for the rest of her life.